At the end of December 2019, a new respiratory disease COVID-19 (corona virus disease 2019) occurred for the first time in the megapolis of Wuhan in China. Where did the virus come from? We don’t really know. Viruses are everywhere.
The majority of the human pathogenic viruses come from the animal kingdom and have jumped to humans. Neither are SARS viruses, of which the coronavirus is one, unknown. SARS viruses have always played a role in serious cases of pneumonia in humans. We have lived together with them for a long time already.
We know about the ability of rapid mutation from the flu virus. We can assume the same to be the case for SARS viruses.
The coronavirus (Sars-CoV-2) has changed our everyday lives profoundly (at the time of writing, June 2020).
How do we emerge from it again? Vaccination is one possibility. But it is not that likely that a good vaccine will soon be available as things stand. Alternatively: allowing immunisation (opening kindergartens, schools and universities?), maintaining social distancing and protecting the people in risk groups. It may be the case that the mortality is not that different from influenza but this cannot be determined at this point because of insufficient data and a lack of knowledge. Further research is needed. In six months we will know more. Until then we would be well advised to respect reality.
When are viruses harmful?
Viruses have a protein coat and genetic material inside. This gives them a programme that controls division and thus reproduction. But they cannot reproduce themselves, they have no metabolism of their own and certainly cannot travel. To this extent they are comprehensively non-independent. They can only exist with the aid of a host. There is indeed a debate among biologists whether viruses are “alive” at all in the narrower sense. The German virus and cancer researcher Karin Mölling on the other hand sees the origin of life on earth in connection with viruses and therefore considers them as living things.
Life is always the formation of unstable equilibriums. Very complex ecological equilibriums have arisen in the course of evolution. At the point when humans began to destroy these equilibriums, viruses were released which turned into human pathogens. We can show that this has happened since the Neolithic period when humans began to settle and intervened destructively in nature. The consequence: measles and tuberculosis pathogens jumped from cows, where they were harmless (apathogenic), to humans, the whooping cough pathogen comes from pigs and flue was transmitted from ducks to humans (Atlas der Globalisierung).
We are aware of such examples also more recently: from everything we know, the AIDS pathogen jumped from macaques to humans in the Congo; as did the cholera pathogen in India and Bangladesh from microorganisms in brackish water in the mangrove forests when they were massively deforested. The same applies to US intensive livestock farming in which half the animals are infected with EHEC (enterohaemorrhagic Escherichia coli, a mutant of our normal gut bacterium E. coli, which causes bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure). EHEC is harmful to humans but not animals. It enters into the human nutrition cycle through drinking water and each year leads to more than 90,000 cases of EHEC illness in the USA (Venegas-Vargas 2016).
In 2005, scientists were able to reconstruct the Spanish flu virus of subtype A/H1N1. They suspect that the virus at the time jumped from pigs to human in the Midwest of the USA.
It appears plausible that in China the coronavirus jumped to humans in the wet markets where live animals are kept, often stacked in small cages. The pathogens of SARS, bird flu and other new epidemics have arisen from such shameful conditions or intensive livestock farming (Wallace, 2016).
In all the cases described above, the animals lived with the viruses without falling ill. It is only when humans destroy nature and/or place animals under terrible stress that the viruses jump to humans and/or mutate into pathogenic forms. Humans create the conditions that cause diseases and thus become a part of an overall pathological system which in turn affects them.
Thus Thomas Hardtmuth writes: “Pathology through microorganisms starts where we disregard the sphere of autonomy of humans and animals. Epidemics start where humans and animals are under permanent stress, in conflict areas, where there is overcrowding, fear, deprivation and distance from nature, in intensive livestock farming as much as in places where people are crowded together under inhuman conditions” (Hardtmuth 2020).
Human cells are the carriers of the coronavirus. But this means that it is not just the person but our lifestyle in general, our economic exchange processes as well as our political structures which are the actual cause for the spread of the virus.
The biological functionality of the virus makes the cultural and social role of this event clear. Human beings, in whom the virus lodges itself, transform our earth – slowly and barely noticeably at first. Meanwhile the extent of our transformation of the earth is becoming threatening. We describe this transformation of the planet as the Anthropocene. The coronavirus attacks the Anthropocene world created by humans. “The rapid reproduction of the virus and its spread highlights and tests the structures and deficits of this Anthropocene world like a magnifying glass” (Scherer 2020).
What distinguishes the Anthropocene? We have created technology and infrastructure for ourselves which meanwhile comprehensively affect the life of the earth. We are thus transforming not just the planet but are also creating an imbalance in the life processes of the earth. We are causing climate change, that is the rise of average temperatures on the earth. The oceans are acidifying. Our water consumption is frightening. And we have introduced unimaginable quantities of plastics into the world. They are meanwhile present everywhere in the form of microplastics. We consume microplastics each day in our food. We buy meat in the supermarket but we don’t see and mostly don’t want to know about the intolerable conditions in which the animals are kept in intensive livestock farming. We torment animals to an extent today as never before. The consequence is also a considerable contribution to CO2 emissions and the production of huge quantities of manure.
The problem with all of this is that we do not notice any of it directly. It seems as if the above is invisible. Although we perceive rain and temperature, we have no perception of climate change which takes place over a longer period of time. Although we see discarded plastic bottles, we do not perceive the microplastics and what they might be doing to us. We fail to perceive the suffering of animals. We like to travel far and wide but have no perception of what that means.
What does it mean when daily more than two hundred thousand aircraft transport millions of people and goods around the earth? This mobility becomes the vehicle for the virus. There does not appear to be a single country on earth in which it has not meanwhile appeared. There is no longer any place to which we can withdraw to avoid it. Just as there is no longer any place to which we can withdraw away from the destruction and poisoning of the world we have brought about. This means that “as actors we are also always a part of events. We permanently produce the world to which we are then also exposed. Coronavirus has spread over the whole planet thanks to the mobility of its host. … We have to understand our actions and thinking as an intrinsic part of these processes. The idea that we can control the world with our knowledge thus turns out to be an illusion” (Scherer 2020).
We have lost our connection with the world, with the life of the earth. And we have lost the connection with our fellow human beings.
We have used the exponential increase in our knowledge in the last decades above all to make our knowledge technically exploitable and profitable. And this is connected with the logic of acceleration. We have used our knowledge to a much lesser extent for the question as to the social benefit and meaning for human beings and the benefit and meaning for the earth. This means that we have created structures in the past which block our future. “The Anthropocene is based on gigantic technological infrastructures which extend over the whole planet, ... These infrastructures are increasingly digitally networked and are developing into their own sphere, the technosphere. The technosphere is extremely capital-intensive and leads to the accumulation of economic power” (Scherer 2020).
These structures are being exposed by the corona crisis. It has siphoned off huge quantities of money from areas of society which in this sense are not productive. This money is missing above all in the health system, schools and all areas of social services such as care, for example. It is missing for sustainably working agriculture and species-appropriate animal husbandry. The earth and its living creatures are being tormented, exploited and poisoned.
The victims of the virus are, above all, the people of the South who do not benefit from the processes of globalisation but are exposed to them. We need only look at what is just happening in India with millions of itinerant workers who have lost their work and income. They are not just getting poorer but are simply starving. The same is happening in Africa completely unnoticed by us. Countries such as China or South Korea have demonstrated to us that the battle against the virus apparently entails the complete surveillance and control of all social processes.
The promise of western modernism was for a long time that it guaranteed autonomy and civil rights and liberties. This was bought through the exploitation of nature and through the exploitation of the people not living in the countries of the West. In recent decades, this promise of freedom changed into the right of unbridled consumption: being able to buy anything at any time and being able to travel everywhere at any time. Meanwhile, we are waging war at every level against everything connected with life. And now something has appeared out of this life sphere, the coronavirus, which drastically illustrates for us the consequences of our actions.
Viruses make life possible
Viruses are not just part of the lifeworld. They stand at the beginning of life. They are everywhere. They play a central role in the processes of evolution. About half of our genetic makeup is of viral origin. Viral genetic material can be found without exception in all living beings. Viruses are part of that microbial world which as a peripheral lifeworld makes the life of the earth and thus also our life possible.
The effects of this war against the virus show that we cannot win. Suddenly it appears acceptable that fundamental rights are temporarily restricted. Suddenly it appears acceptable to run down the economy to an extent that threatens the existence of the economically productive person. Suddenly it appears acceptable to exercise far reaching controls associated with the promise of making the virus disappear.
No. The pandemic in connection with the Sars-CoV-2 virus gives us the opportunity, we might also say forces us to rethink how we want to shape the future:
We have to build a new relationship with the earth otherwise we will only destroy it further. We have to relearn to work together with nature.
What technology can we develop so that we can farm in a way that works together with natural processes? Machines and methods which enable us to stop using poisons any longer? The earth and we are one and belong to a common sphere of life. We owe ourselves to the earth (Schad 2019). We have to learn to work together with life. We have to immunise ourselves. Life learnt to handle microbes a long time ago. We have to build a new relationship with our fellow human beings. That includes doing everything to stop seeing the medical care we all need as something that has to work for profit and make money. Here the thought of caring for the other person has to establish itself again and no longer be subject to the striving for profit. Together we have to answer the question what kind of world we want.
About the author: Dr Albrecht Schad teaches as an upper school teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School in the subjects of biology, chemistry and geography and is professor of the methodology and teaching methodology of the natural sciences at the Freie Hochschule Stuttgart - Seminar for Waldorf Pedagogy.